Oracle goes to school in search of tech diversity

Oracle unveiled plans for a public high school on its campus as tech companies scramble to improve diversity across skilled and leadership jobs.
Written by Rachel King, Contributor

SAN FRANCISCO---Fostering diversity across science and technology jobs demands commitment and investment from current industry leaders -- and targeting younger hires is crucial.

Following dismal reports about the lack of gender and ethnic diversity at many high-profile tech brands, several Silicon Valley titans have attempted to repair the damage and even turn the tide for future generations.

Oracle got into the game this week, announcing plans to build a public charter high school on its campus in Redwood City, Calif., scheduled to be completed and ready for sessions in fall 2017.

Named Design Tech High School (d.tech), the new 64,000-square-foot facility will be used by 550 students and 30 faculty. Oracle employees are also being tapped to volunteer and teach specific tracks during interim sessions between semesters.

Oracle CEO Safra Catz elaborated further about the project during a special luncheon dedicated to women in finance on Wednesday amid the tech giant's annual OpenWorld conference.

Many of the tracks taught by Oracle volunteers will be themed around STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) disciplines. Students can opt to spend time learning about specific technologies, such as building with Raspberry Pi processors.

In one track open solely to female students, Catz highlighted a potential opportunity for students possibly more interested in art but lacked encouragement to pursue anything related to technology. One middle ground, Catz suggested, could be designing and developing wearable technology.

"These are fields where we looked around, and there were no girls at all," Catz lamented.

Catz, who has been with Oracle since 1999, said opening a free high school on Oracle's campus has been a top goal of hers.

Oracle isn't alone in establishing new schools, educational programs and new initiatives to foster workforce diversity and patch up glaring gaps across STEM jobs.

Bay Area philanthropist Priscilla Chan and her husband, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, recently unveiled their vision and plans for The Primary School, a new preschool and K-8 school with a bent on promoting family health. The school will be located in East Palo Alto, Calif., not far from Facebook's expansive and brand-new campus in Menlo Park.

Intel Capital, the venture capital arm of the chip maker, launched an $125 million fund in June for fueling startups run by women or underrepresented minorities.

Intel also has a $1 billion initiative targeted toward diverse suppliers and deeper involvement in the K-12 education sector, most recently with the Oakland Unified School district to establish a stronger path to college and technical careers.

Within Intel, the hardware provider has a goal to drive growth and career development for women and minorities in order to achieve "full representation" at every level by 2020.

Sue Decker, who serves on Intel's board of directors, admitted during Wednesday's luncheon that things aren't going to change over night.

Still, she continued, if corporations set specific goals, those changes can happen. Decker added she is often met with the counter-argument that there are always other problems that also demand immediate attention.

But if you take a long-term view, Decker indicated, there are many things companies can do with outreach, starting at the college level if not sooner.

"We all have a responsibility to talk about it," Decker asserted, extending that responsibility to the next generation, encompassing both mentorship and revealing one's own career path.

Gilead Sciences chief financial officer Robin Washington argued encouraging gender and ethnic diversity among STEM jobs has to come from the top.

"Companies catching kids early is absolutely critical," Washington warned.

Decker traced some of stepping stones throughout her career, positing that starting as an individual contributor empowered her to help others become successful.

"There were not many role models out there," Decker lamented about her own entry into the workforce, quipping the first one that came to mind when she was growing up was literary heroine Nancy Drew.

That shouldn't take away the importance of having good mentors and role models, Decker countered, noting that in her case, they were all male.

Over time, Decker, who also sits on the boards of Berkshire Hathaway and Costco as well as those for several smaller businesses, touted people from her teams have gone on to become executives and department leaders all over Silicon Valley.

"As I look back at my career, I don't think you can have a plan," Decker stressed repeatedly. "I'm a big believer in making sure you put yourself in a position to have things happen."

Both Catz and Washington admitted that if someone asked them years ago if they would be in the roles they are in now, they would have shook their heads at the notions.

"I didn't plan to do this," Washington said. "But I will say I think I planned the journey. Not necessarily the way everything was going to happen this way, but preparing myself to be open to different experiences."

Putting yourself in a position to do well and taking chances along the way will open paths, Decker advocated, you can't chart them out exactly in advance. That's because, Decker reminded, you're not going to know what products are going to exist and the people you are going to meet along the way.

"Role models are more like an à la carte menu," Decker proposed, adding you don't have to take all the things someone is offering but the things you admire, and then learn from them.

Sometimes that journey is also about uncovering what you don't enjoy doing, Washington countered. Acknowledging she, too, has never had a female boss, Washington stipulated she prefers the term "sponsor" over "mentor."

Claire Hughes Johnson, chief operating officer at Stripe, warned against the potential pitfalls of relying solely on mentorship programs, observing "we often mentor people who are like us." Thus, there are a number of prospective hires and employees who could fall through the cracks.

"Often you get departments that work on diversity or diversity programs, but the fact that they are on the side, they are marginalized," Johnson cautioned. "It's not their problem, but they're being asked to solve it."

Karen Walker, controller and vice president at Uber, concurred, speculating mentor programs don't always work out because the relationships often don't develop organically.

Previously at Google and now at Stripe, Johnson said the digital payments processor is figuring out how to build diversity into every corner of the company.

"I think we have a diverse workforce for a small company. But frankly, there's work to be done," Johnson insisted, pointing toward changes for hiring, promotion, growing leaders and identifying talent.

Washington underscored the importance of networking, advising the luncheon audience members to take time to build dialogues with people, nurture those relationships, and build a personal brand.

"Be comfortable with being uncomfortable," Washington urged. "If I only did what I was comfortable in, I wouldn't be siting here today."

Image via Oracle

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